Forbes |Dominic Dudley: With nominations now closed for the May 19 Iranian presidential election, the likely shape of the contest is beginning to emerge. Economic issues are likely to be the main sparring ground for the reformist and conservative candidates.
A total of 1,636 candidates have registered to run, but the Guardian Council, which vets all candidates, is likely to disqualify the vast majority of them. The key test will be whether it chooses to block any of the more prominent figures from running. The final slate of candidates is expected to be revealed on April 26 or 27.
The main contenders can be roughly divided up into reformists such as President Hassan Rouhani, and conservative or principalist candidates such as Ebrahim Raisi, a former prosecutor-general and head of the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad.
Alongside those two front-runners, on the reformist slate there is also vice-president Eshaq Jahangiri, who is thought to have registered as a fallback option in case Rouhani is barred from competing by the Guardian Council.
The economy is likely to be the most pressing theme in the campaign, which will officially run from April 28 to May 17. In particular, much of the debate is likely to focus on the gains – or lack of them – to have come as a result of the nuclear agreement Iran signed with the US and other international powers in July 2015.
As it stands at the moment, Rouhani could well face a skeptical reception from the public as he tries to make his case for another term. A survey of more than 1,000 Iranians conducted by IranPoll.com between April 11 and 14 contains lots of results which look worrying for the incumbent.
When asked about their current level of income, 54% of those questioned said ‘I hardly get by’ or ‘it is very difficult to get by’; and 35% said their family’s economic situation had deteriorated compared to four years ago, against 11% who said it had improved.
Taking a wider perspective, Iranians are pessimistic about the country’s economic situation too. While 34% said the current situation was ‘very good’ or ‘somewhat good’, 64% said it was ‘somewhat bad’ or ‘very bad’ (2% didn’t know or declined to answer). In addition, 52% said the economic situation was getting worse, as opposed to 31% who said it was improving.
Despite all this, Rouhani is viewed more positively than most of his main rivals. In the survey 62% of people said they had a ‘very favorable’ or ‘somewhat favorable’ opinion of Rouhani, compared to 52% for Ahmadinejad, 39% for Jahangiri, 31% for Raisi and 16% for Baghaei. The only person to score higher than Rouhani was Ghalibaf, with a 67% favorable rating. Perhaps the biggest problem for some of the others is their low public profile – 46% of people said they didn’t know who Raisi was.
When it comes to specific issues, Rouhani does better than his main rivals in most areas, including improving Iran’s foreign relations, increasing civil liberties, removing international sanctions, fighting corruption and improving the living conditions of the poor.
However, he lags behind Ghalibaf when it comes to dealing with Iran’s environmental problems and, significantly, when it comes to tackling unemployment – the latter is the issue most often cited by Iranians when asked what problem the next president should focus on.
The president has been campaigning hard in recent weeks – unofficially at least – making numerous trips around the country to launch new projects and making speeches about the need to accelerate economic development. His government has also boosted cash handouts to poorer Iranians. There are likely to be other similar initiatives from the government and Rouhani in the weeks to come, assuming the Guardian Council allows him to run.
Dominic Dudley is a freelance journalist with almost two decades’ experience in reporting on business, economic and political stories in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe.